It's time for trustworthy comms in healthcare

Healthcare will be the most exciting and challenging place for communicators in the next five minutes and five years.

Healthcare will be the most exciting and challenging place for communicators in the next five minutes and five years. More change is coming to this sector than to any other area of the economy. With that change is an enormous need for credible, trustworthy communication. 

Healthcare providers, insurers, and patients all will undergo a transformation driven by demographics, economics, technology, and globalization.

"In five years healthcare delivery will look nothing like it does today," says Andrew Stefo, chief financial officer of Ingalls Memorial Hospital outside Chicago.

"Alternative models are coming faster than most people think. And the Affordable Care Act is just one of the catalysts of that change." An aging baby-boomer population with increased rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer will drive higher healthcare costs. New, expensive treatment technology and research costs for new pharmaceuticals will change healthcare economics.

"The rate of medical innovation is incredible with DNA sequencing, personalized medicine, and molecular diagnostics. The trend toward personalized medicine is accelerating and it's going to be a lot more expensive," says Dr. Reyn Archer, MD of Consitor, a new Burson-Marsteller healthcare firm.

Finding and implementing solutions will require communicating clearly the need for change, the mechanics of that change, and the consumer implications.

Hospitals are investing in IT, applying managerial concept lean six sigma, and forming accountable care organizations, often in partnership with payers.

"Three years ago we hired a black belt consultant to help us take out waste, minimize variation, and minimize patient harm. By building intelligence into our data systems we believe we can reduce costs and improve the quality of care,"says John Werrbach, CEO of Alexian Brothers Medical Center.

Hospitals, doctors, pharmacies, and others are working on linking electronic medical records to avoid duplicative services and tests, and provide doctors with a full picture of a patient's medical condition to track outcomes.

Concern for patient privacy and the fragmented delivery system have kept healthcare IT far behind other industries.

As recently as two years ago, only two in 10 doctors and one in 10 hospitals used a basic electronic record system.

Healthcare providers are also playing catch-up to consumers in the use of technology. "Six in 10 are making treatment decisions based on what they find online," says Nancy Hicks, Ketchum SVP and associate director, North America healthcare practice.

Helping consumers identify and use credible sources of healthcare information is another education and communication challenge.

Incentives in healthcare to this point have been to increase utilization, increase the number of procedures and drugs, and keep facilities full. There have been virtually no incentives for preventative medicine.

Change starts with paying for good out-comes rather than volume of services, followed by technology support to better coordinate care and, finally, the implementation of wellness and prevention programs. A huge hurdle to overcome is patient compliance. This is only the beginning of change.

By 2014 every state needs to have a healthcare insurance exchange in place.This is also spurring the growth of private health exchanges as another alternative to our current system of payments. Organizers of both public and private exchanges will need to conduct extensive enrollee education.

Public education campaigns are needed. Credible health information needs to be widely communicated. Doctors need to change the way they practice medicine. Compensation and incentives need realignment. Technology needs to be used to improve quality of care. New pharmaceuticals based on personalized medicine will be developed and require information on how to prescribe and administer, and the public will need to trust the concept.

Millions of disenfranchised will be brought into the healthcare system and the model for providing education, prevention and treatment will need to be turned on its head. Health- care providers who are neither doctors nor nurses will be introduced into the system.

Could there be a better time to be in healthcare communication?

Tom Nicholson is managing director of The Nicholson Group. He is the former executive director of the Arthur W. Page Society.

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